Rogier van der Weyden’s Divine Compositions: Thought in Image

UPDATE: In the 3 years since I first wrote this, I’ve learned to be a lot more suspicious of Bouleau’s text; I do not now think that the pentagon method is what van der Weyden would’ve used; and suspect that he relied on a much simpler format, of centering the main character (Jesus) and then making the rest of the image fairly symmetrical; the most typical method of the time was to center the main character, and then place other figures around it.. I’ll have to recheck the Huyghe text, but I suspect it’s a misunderstanding… most likely if any golden section was used, it was to construct the symmetrical forms of the human body of the figures, and NOT to construct the overall composition. Likely I got this one wrong! Argh! 

Perhaps you’ve seen this painting in an introductory art history class, Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, circa 1435:

(Image source: Prado Museum, Madrid)

It’s a beautiful painting, with vivid color, drapery and theatrics. But perhaps at first glance van der Weyden’s use of perspective seems messed up. In 1435 the new sciences of optics and visual perspective were being invented. Van der Weyden, as a leading artist and teacher and student of other leading teachers (Campin, for example) surely was aware of such innovations. Yet however convincing and lyrical the depth of his Descent appears, the floor plane is too steep, and each side, the center, and the top of the composition each seem to have their own scenes, their own vanishing points, almost as if we’re looking at a triptych set inside a very narrow stage, a triptych that has been glued together into one strangely-shaped panel. Why did he paint it like this? Why the repetitions, the odd poses, and twisty postures? To the contemporary eye that is so used to a single-lens, photographic viewpoint, the liberties that van der Weyden took with posture, form, and pose look odd and unrealistic… our idea of the realistic is the camera’s perspective, the photoreal. In contrast this is the sculptural, geometric, and imaginal. This is not realistic in the sense of what things look like, rather, this may be realistic in the sense of what things feel and think like, especially in the religious reverie of van der Weyden’s time.

In fact van der Weyden’s Descent is a perfectly proportioned composition built within the context of Golden Sections of three overlaid pentagons. His refinements take after the Medieval artist’s more typically strict reliance on single pentagons, which were considered among the perfect geometric forms and therefore symbolic of the Divine. St. Anselm’s Ontological Proof of God’s Existence, which was an influential theology, stemmed from the widespread belief that Divinity would need to be eternal, all-knowing, and all-powerful – perfectly symmetrical and harmonic unlike base human problems such as disease and decay and death. In visual art, that perfect symmetry would be represented by the pentagon, the circle, the golden section and their variations. This attraction to geometric forms would later grow into the spatial dynamics of Neoplatonism, the mystical geometric ideals that Michelangelo developed in his art and architecture. According to Bouleau (p. 67, Painter’s Secret Geometry) and also to Huyghe (p. 79, Discovery of Art), most northern artists of the time relied on the Golden Section, constructed from the pentagon and the circle, as was taught in the art academies and art guilds. But here van der Weyden uses it with a subtlety and suppleness that allows his figures to rotate and twist in space, adding a theatric, illusionary drama that is not found in medieval artworks. To give you a sense of how this works, I’ve drawn out the compositional diagram here:

Note how the three pentagons (in red, each symbolizing the perfect and the divine) overlap in the center, where the central figure falls. Is it too far a reach to suggest that the perfect pentagons come together as one trinity, linked together precisely with the image of Christ’s death, symbolizing what so many Christians understand as a central moment in the stages of New Testament? The precision of this composition becomes more apparent in the context of this less compositionally precise drawing, also attributed to van der Weyden, from the Louvre:

This drawing may have been a study from the Descent made after the painting. Or it could’ve been a study before the painting was developed, or it might be a study for a different painting. We don’t know. Few drawings can be convincingly attributed to van der Weyden. But to me this drawing is likely to be a preliminary study, because it is decidedly less rigorous a composition, maybe even unfinished, compared to Descent, where every gesture and main curvature of each figure relates to the compositional pentagons and their inscribed circles. If you look closely you can see long horizontal and vertical charcoal lines – caesura typical of artists of van der Weyden’s time as they considered the overall scaffolding of their compositions. Here is another of his drawings, of a much more triptych-like composition:

Obviously this composition’s frame is very similar to the painting Descent, although clearly it represents different elements of the New Testament story altogether. Also the drawing appears finished, carefully inked throughout, whereas the previous drawing contains unfinished notations and some sections of ornamentation such as seen in the corners of the painting.

It’s fascinating, I think, to consider how Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross reveals a composition of a geometry that was associated with the idea of the divine – as if to say that there’s a theological proof behind and supporting the structure of every story. Perhaps understanding these ideals lends an answer to the question of why van der Weyden composed his pictures the way he did: he was making a profound theological statement through his artworks. He was painting much of what he thought about the theology and geometry of his time, not just what the world looked like.

UPDATE: In the 3 years since I first wrote this, I’ve learned to be a lot more suspicious of Bouleau’s text; I do not now think that the pentagon method is what van der Weyden would’ve used; and suspect that he relied on a much simpler format, of centering the main character (Jesus) and then making the rest of the image fairly symmetrical; the most typical method of the time was to center the main character, and then place other figures around it. I’ll have to recheck the Huyghe text, but I suspect it’s a misunderstanding… most likely if any golden section was used, it was to construct the symmetrical forms of the human body of the figures, and NOT to construct the overall composition. Likely I got this one wrong! Argh! 

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